I took some time to comb through Box Office Mojo’s list of the top grossing movies based on comic books and really look at which movies were successful. Most studios don’t release their actual costs, just the production budget, but a rule of thumb is that a movie is profitable once its box office gross is twice the production budget. I used that rule to calculate which movies had the best return on their investment.
Biggest Money Makers:
These are the movies that just flat out made money. They’re the blockbusters that everyone went to see the year they were released.
- Production Budget: $220,000,000
- Estimated Profit Point: $440,000,000
- Worldwide Box Office Gross: $1,519,557,910
- Estimated Net Profit: $1,079,557,910
- Percent Gain: %245.35
This movie tops the list, but it’s also representative of Marvel’s dominance at the box office. Of the top 20 most money making comic book movies, 15 of them are based on Marvel characters, and 7 of those 15 are part of the Avengers universe (The other 8 are the 5 Spider-man movies, one of the X-Men movies, Men in Black, and Big Hero 6). The Avengers is also the only comic book movie to boast a billion dollar profit, not just box-office gross. Not only that, but it’s proven to be Marvel’s best investment as well, with the largest percentage gain from all their properties. Solid writing, a stellar cast, and a whole lot of fun helped this movie be successful, and it’s arguably the best comic book movie ever, not just the most profitable.
- Production Budget: $185,000,000
- Estimated Profit Point: $370,000,000
- Worldwide Box Office Gross: $1,004,558,444
- Estimated Net Profit: $634,558,444
- Percent Gain: %171.50
Another contender for best comic book movie ever, The Dark Knight is DC’s most profitable movie. It’s also one of only 5 comic book films to break the $1,000,000,000 box office mark. Not only did the movie make a lot of money, but it was nominated for 8 Academy Awards. It’s also one of only two comic book movies to win more than one (the other was Dick Tracy). The first award was for sound editing, and the other was for best supporting actor, given posthumously to Heath Ledger, and is the only acting Oscar given for a comic book character. The darker tone of the movie resonated really well with the character, and with excellent writing and Ledger’s fantastic Joker, this movie is a perfect example of what comic book movies can be.
- Production Budget: $65,000,000
- Estimated Profit Point: $130,000,000
- Worldwide Box Office Gross: $456,068,181
- Estimated Net Profit: $326,068,181
- Percent Gain: %250.82
In terms of overall profit, 300 actually ranks 14th, but I’ve placed it here because it’s the highest ranking comic book movie that isn’t based on properties owned by Marvel or DC. Director Zack Snyder kept his costs down by trying something pretty revolutionary. He filmed most scenes in front of a green screen and digitally added the backgrounds. This gave the movie a very distinct look, and despite the R rating (rare for a comic book movie), drew in the crowds. The source material, published by Dark Horse and written by the legendary Frank Miller, isn’t historically accurate, but it sure was entertaining on the big screen.
Other Movies of Note:
- Avengers: Age of Ultron (estimated net profit: $898,752,317)
- Iron Man 3 (estimated net profit: $815,439,994)
- The Dark Knight Rises (estimated net profit: $584,439,099)
- Men in Black (estimated net profit: $409,390,539)
Unlike the above movies, these are the ones that made the most money relative to how much they cost.
- Production Budget: $23,000,000
- Estimated Profit Point: $46,000,000
- Worldwide Box Office Gross: $351,583,407
- Estimated Net Profit: $305,583,407
- Percent Gain: %664.31
I wasn’t expecting this. The Mask is a fine movie, and it was one of Jim Carrey’s best, but I didn’t think it would be on this list, not to mention topping it. Based on a Dark Horse character that never appeared for more than 5 consecutive issues, it doesn’t seem like the most likely comic book to get a film adaptation, but I’m sure the studio was glad it took the chance. The Mask made back over twelve times it’s production budget and helped solidify Jim Carrey as one of the best film comedians of the day. The cartoonish nature of the character was a perfect vehicle for the highly animated actor, and the combination made for an incredibly fun movie.
- Production Budget: $13,500,000
- Estimated Profit Point: $27,000,000
- Worldwide Box Office Gross: $201,965,915
- Estimated Net Profit: $174,965,915
- Percent Gain: 648.02%
I have a lot of nostalgic love for this movie. It was actually the first movie I ever purchased on DVD. I still like to watch it occasionally, but I’m not going to kid myself and say it’s a particularly good movie, so seeing this movie at number 2 explained a lot of things for me. It explained why it got two sequels, and when I looked a little further, it explained why the turtles keep getting remakes. No movie based on Mirage comic’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has ever been unprofitable. Not the lousy animated movie in 2007, not the awful Michael Bay version in 2014. Even the second sequel to this movie (you know, the one where they go back to medieval Japan) made a profit. It all started with this movie that made back over twelve times its production budget.
- Production Budget: $35,000,000
- Estimated Profit Point: $70,000,000
- Worldwide Box Office Gross: $411,348,924
- Estimated Net Profit: $341,348,924
- Percent Gain: %487.64
I’m not really sure what to say about this movie. It’s Batman, it’s iconic. It’s probably the movie that many would have expected to lead this category. It’s definitely better known as a comic book adaptation than The Mask or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While Superman may be the best known DC character, Batman is right behind him, and historically has been a much better investment. The very first Batman film made over eight times it’s production costs at the box office (more than double the return of the most successful Superman movie). This was also the first comic book movie to try for a darker, grittier tone, and it helped Tim Burton, the director, establish his now famous style. Michael Keaton, known for comedic roles before this, was an odd choice to fill the title role, but he, along with Jack Nicholson, gave an outstanding performance. This movie has heavily influenced the entire genre of comic book movies, possibly more than any other.
Other Movies of Note:
- The Avengers (percent gain: 245.35%)
- Spider-man (percent gain: 195.58%)
- Casper (percent gain: 187.93%)
- Superman (percent gain: 172.93%)
Just for fun, I thought I’d include the opposite end of the spectrum. These are the movies that didn’t just lose money, but they lost a lot of money.
- Production Budget: $130,000,000
- Estimated Profit Point: $260,000,000
- Worldwide Box Office Gross: $78,324,220
- Estimated Net Loss: $181,675,780
- Percent Loss: -69.88%
This film had the biggest cash loss in comic movie history. Based off the comic series published by Dark Horse, it likely didn’t have the following to overcome the negative reviews from critics. The most common complaints are that it was very formulaic and predictable, as well as being a little too reminiscent of Men in Black or Ghostbusters
- Production Budget: $47,000,000
- Estimated Profit Point: $94,000,000
- Worldwide Box Office Gross: $10,903,312
- Estimated Net Loss: $83,096,688
- Percent Loss: -88.40%
Owned by DC, this movie has been their worst investment thus far. When it comes to DC properties, Green Lantern gets a lot more attention for being a flop, and deservedly so, it lost the most total money (about $180,000,000, second only to R.I.P.D.), but at least it made back it’s production budget. Jonah Hex, on the other hand, barely made any money at all. Only two films made a smaller percentage of their budget back (13 Sins and Dylan Dog), but both were small releases that played in fewer than 1000 theaters. Jonah Hex didn’t have that limitation, it was just bad. Critics hated everything from the story to the acting, and it was considered one of the worst movies of the year.
- Production Budget: $120,000,000
- Estimated Profit Point: $240,000,000
- Worldwide Box Office Gross: $103,075,183 (as of Aug. 18)
- Estimated Net Loss: $136,924,817
- Percent Loss: -57.05%
I listed DC’s biggest bomb, so it’s only fair I do the same for Marvel. This movie is still in theaters as I’m writing this, so it still has a chance to make back its production budget, but it doesn’t seem likely. While it’s not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Fantastic 4 are Marvel characters, and this is Marvel’s biggest bomb. (The other option was Punisher: War Zone, which had a larger percentage loss.) Sloppy writing, mediocre acting, and rushed production all seem to be reasons why the movie didn’t do well. It also received a lot of negative press from critics very early on. Strange as it may seem, the movie seems to be reaching cult status as a movie so bad people have to see how terrible it is for themselves.
Other Movies of Note:
- Green Lantern (estimated net loss: -$180,148,828)
- Cowboys and Aliens (estimated net loss: -$151,177,675)
- Mystery Men (estimated net loss: -$102,538,989)
- Howard the Duck (estimated net loss: -$36,037,226)